The Family of Abraham: Part 2—A Dead Brother and a Barren Wife

This is the second part of my series on the family of Abraham. Within it, I discuss the background to the call of Abram in the story of the Flood, Babel, and the death of Haran.

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Yesterday, I began a new series discussing the life of Abraham’s family, something that covers the vast majority of the book of Genesis. I want us to explore the way in which the life, the events, and the characters of this family are bound up together within one whole tapestry. What we are reading is like a vast novel with all the different characters being very closely connected to each other, and a unified series of events are playing out. It will take a while to put together the pieces, to help you to see how various things fit in. But, hopefully, by the end of this time, we will have a clearer sense of just how tightly integrated the story of Abraham and his family is.

Today, I want to begin with the story of Terah. Terah is Abraham’s father, from Ur of the Chaldees. He leaves Ur of the Chaldees and he goes and ends his life in the city of Haran. Now, Terah is the father of three sons: the father of Haran, Nachor, and Abram. Abram, although he is mentioned first in the list of Terah’s sons, does not appear to be the oldest. Later on, in Acts 7, Stephen talks about the fact that it was after his father died that Abraham left Haran and went to the Promised Land.

Now, since we know that Abraham left at the age of 75, that his father died at 205 years, and that Terah lived 70 years before he begot Abram, Nahor, and Haran, we know that there is something mixed up in this ordering. It is not mistaken, but it is ordered differently from the chronological order of the births. So, it is quite probable that Haran was the oldest of the brothers. We might have Haran, the oldest, and then maybe Abram, followed by Nahor—or perhaps followed by Nahor and then Abram. Maybe Abram is the youngest.

What we see within this passage is that there was already a journey that had been undertaken, that Terah had already left Ur of the Chaldees before Abram went further, into the Promised Land. This text also occurs at the end of Chapter 11. Chapter 11 begins in a significant place, with the story of Nimrod, the descendants of Shem, and others heading to the Plains of Shinar and founding a city and a tower there—the Tower of Babel. This is the foundation of Babylon.

These are significant places. And as you read through the Book of Genesis, you will see again and again there are significant places introduced to us. Here we have Babel, or Babylon, that is introduced to us. Earlier on, in Chapter 10, we have a vast cast of nations introduced to us—seventy different nations. And we will see that number is significant. Seventy represents the nations. There are also seventy elders of Israel. We will see that seventy symbolizes all the peoples of the world.

And there are significant relations within these nations as well. So, for instance, Ham is the father of Canaan, and Canaan is judged as a result of Ham’s sin in Genesis 9—we will get onto that in a moment. We also see Ham as the father of Mizraim. Mizraim is the father of the peoples of Egypt, but also of the Philistines. When we look through the rest of Scripture, we will see the Philistines and Egyptians are often held alongside each other. They are related peoples. What happens to Israel in relationship to the Philistines is symbolically related to their connection with Egypt. Significant characters are appearing on the scene already. The plot is beginning to take shape. We are beginning to see some of the pieces being placed upon the board, some of the setting being established. And into this setting we have this event of the Tower of Babel.

The desire of the builders of the Tower of Babel was to build a city and a tower—not just a tower, but a city, a gathering together of all peoples in a single place so that they would not be scattered over the face of the earth. This great tower that reached up to heaven is a sign of their might, also a sign of their legacy. This is one of the dangers that we have: as human beings, we fear death. Death: individual, but also civilizational. We fear that we will be scattered, that we will be lost, that our peoplehood will perish. And so, we want to build a monument, make a name for ourselves, to leave something behind. The concern of the builders of the Tower of Babel is probably primarily this. They want to create a name for themselves, and they do not want to be scattered across the face of the earth.

But yet, God intervenes. God deliberates with the heavenly council: “Let us go down and confuse their languages.” Now, we do not have to think about this as an instant miracle of confusing languages. Rather, it might have been a slow process. Building a tower in a city can even take hundreds of years. The confusion of the languages could take place over many decades. And, gradually, different people groups start to fracture, and they no longer form a unified body of peoples. This might have been what took place.

God intervenes, and there is a similar intervention here to the way that God intervenes at the end of the story of the Fall, where God removes Adam and Eve from the Garden so that they will not take from the Tree of Life and live forever. At that point, it says that “The man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil.” In both cases, we have human beings pretending to a status that is equivalent to that of the divine council, which includes God, and also the angelic beings, the rulers and guardians of the world. And in this situation, God intervenes and judges because mankind has been unfaithful.

Mankind wants to save themselves from death—from individual death, from civilizational death. And the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is a sign of power, and might, and attaining to the status of the gods. The Tree of Life is something that preserves you from death. One could argue that what they were looking for in Babel was both of these things. They wanted the status of the gods, of great rulers over the world. And they wanted life. They did not want to be scattered. And so, they wanted to maintain this civilizational life and be rooted in this one particular point, and have no obstacle that could prevent them from doing so.

Now, in both cases, God realizes that if this were to go ahead, there would be a real problem. And so, God says, “Indeed, the people are one and they all have one language. And this is what they begin to do. Now, nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them.” Is God just worried that man is going to accumulate so much power that they are going to become stronger than God? No. That is not what is taking place. Rather, there is a sense in which sin and man’s might will become so great, and so consolidated, and so unthreatened that it will not be arrested by any force other than God himself. God has to intervene.

In the same way, if man were to eat of the Tree of Life in the state of rebellion, there would be nothing to prevent that whole rebellion from taking an even more condensed form. And so, death is a means by which that sin is prevented from moving as freely as it would do otherwise. This is also one of the ways in which God exercises grace after the Fall. We can think about the events that occur after the Fall—the judgments upon the different characters—as condemnations and curses. But there is also something else going on there: it is also the prevention of the movement of sin. It is a set of firebreaks that God is establishing. He creates enmity between the adversary—the serpent—and the woman: the woman will not just follow the serpent wherever the serpent leads. Likewise, there is tension created between the man and woman, so that the man will not—as he did at the Fall—just meekly follow after the woman in whatever she suggests. The man, for his part, has friction created between him and the world in his labor. So, when man exercises his labor on the world, the earth will not yield to him as readily as it once did. It will resist him. It will bring forth thorns and thistles.

And so, in all of these respects, there are firewalls being established. There is friction being established. God is frustrating relationships, creating enmity and tension, but as the form of grace—among other things—so that sin does not just wipe out everything. It is so sin does not run riot over everything else, but that it can be held in check. And likewise here: God prevents this one-world civilization from being developed so that sin cannot be so strongly consolidated.

What happens instead are the peoples are scattered throughout the different parts of the world. And this is a good thing. This was always God’s intent—that the people should be separated. They should fill the earth and subdue it. That was the calling to humankind—not to gather together in one place, consolidate their power, and seek to avoid civilizational death by opposing anything that might fracture them.

This is a significant background to the story of Abraham. You have a people who have gathered together to dwell in a particular place, to make a name for themselves, and to protect themselves from death. It is a response to the threat of death. It is a response to the threat of separation. And it is a quest for power, for wisdom, and for life, for a legacy. And this is something that is judged by God. God forms all these different nations that are scattered as a result of a great judgment, so they fill and cover the whole face of all the earth.

Now, this might remind us of things that have come before. One of the things it might remind us of are the events of the Flood—that the earth is covered with the water, the whole face of the earth. There is this scattering of humankind is that judgment upon humankind. And in a similar way here, what you have is a cutting off of an attempt to create this consolidated civilization against God’s power, a consolidation of civilizational life, and dominion. Rather, they have to be separated out. There is a flood-like judgment. And in the wake of this, something else happens.

The calling of Abram, the son of Terah, is something that needs to be read against the background of what has come before, what has come before just within that same chapter in our Bibles. As in the Hebrew text, the beginning and the end of that chapter are very closely related, even if there is not a chapter division within the text itself in the original.

What we see is a similar crisis. There is a crisis about death and legacy that is playing out here, a crisis of making a name for oneself. What does that mean? How is that to be achieved? As we look through the story, what we will see is that the characters are playing out, in miniature, some of these themes. It will help us to understand what comes next.

What do we see at the beginning of the story of Abraham? What we see is an initial journey made by Terah out of Ur of the Chaldees, and the death of Terah’s son, Haran. This casts a shadow over the whole beginning of that story. There is this beginning of the story in the death of the son. And the son—probably the firstborn son—dies before his father Terah in his native land, in Ur of the Chaldees. Thus begins a lot of the plot. At that point, Nahor and Abram take wives. Nahor takes Milcah, the daughter of Haran. And Abram takes Sarai.

Now, the question is, who is Sarai? There have been thoughtful suggestions that go back a very long way, that Sarai was Iscah, the other daughter of Haran. What is taking place here? There are three sons of Terah. There is a judgment upon the world, a scattering abroad, the civilizational death brought upon the builders of the Tower of Babel, and we see the whole face of the world being covered with these peoples. There is a flood-like event, and there is a curse, a judgment. And now, there is a new people formed.

There is a father with three sons, which might remind us of Noah and Shem, Ham, and Japheth, his three sons. Within that story, one of those sons is judged for his failure to honour his father. Noah, the father, is drunk after drinking from the wine of his vineyard, and he becomes naked in his tent. And Ham goes in and calls his brothers to see their father naked, as an act of assault upon his authority, and also to reveal his father’s nakedness. There is a lot of charged language here, which is elsewhere associated with sexual violation. I do not believe that there is sexual violation in view in this text, but the allusions need to be borne in mind. There is some grave assault against the father taking place here, and against the authority of Noah as a figure. Ham calls his brothers in to ridicule his father, presumably.

But the brothers bring in the cloak or the robe of Noah and place it upon him—bearing it upon their shoulders, and walking back, and placing it upon him—to protect the honour of their father, and also to represent the kingly rule of their father. There is something very important taking place there. You have three brothers: one brother who is wicked, who seeks to overturn his father’s authority, and two other brothers intervene. And then, the son of that brother—the youngest brother, Ham—is judged. His son Canaan is going to be a servant of servants, and there is blessing upon Shem and Japheth. Japheth and Shem will be together, but there will be a judgment upon Ham and his son Canaan.

What happens, then, in the story of Abram is, again, a story of three sons. The first son dies. Haran dies in the land of Ur of Chaldees, and he has children: Lot, Iscah, and Milcah. There is an action taken on his behalf by his brothers to preserve his line. And so, Nahor marries Milcah and, quite possibly, Abram marries Iscah, who is also called Sarai. And that starts the story.

Now, why might that be significant? It might be significant because here we see some people who are concerned with maintaining the name and the honour of someone else—not their own name, but the name of their brother. I have found Rabbi David Fohrman very helpful on this, and I highly recommend that you look into what he has said on this passage. But there are some very deep connections between this and the story of Noah that proceeds it.

Three brothers, a father, and intervention to, in this case, save the brother who has died, to save the interests of the brother. Now, they end up in Haran. Haran when referring to the city is not the same word, as I have discussed on another occasion, as the name of the brother Haran. But they are very close. They are extremely close. And the fact that they occur in this same place in such close juxtaposition with each other, and thematically related, just seems odd if there is no connection with them. A number of writers have observed that, in all likelihood, there is a thematic or some other connection between these names. What might that connection be? I think the connection would be that the name of the place is associated with maintaining the name of the brother who has died; they settle in this land of Haran, the city of Haran, and Terah dies there, seeking to preserve the name of his son who has died. And we see this also within the story of Cain, that cities are named for sons and for other people whose names want to be preserved. Part of the point of creating great cities is that you can name them and preserve a name for yourself. This is part of your legacy; it is part of how you survive civilizational death.

But yet, Abram is called away from Haran, and he is called to go to the land of Canaan. Now, Canaan reminds us of someone we have already encountered before. Canaan was the son who was judged—the son of Ham who is judged for his father’s sin. And here we see these themes start to emerge again. There is a deep backdrop for this story. There are events already in motion. There has been a judgment upon the world, a flood-like judgment, with the scattering of all the peoples, the whole face of the world covered. And now, all the peoples are scattered by a curse. What is God going to do? Is God going to form a new humanity? That is what he does. He forms the new humanity with the three sons of the father, Terah. And they are all bound up together in different ways. We will see, as we go through the story, that it is not that it just concentrates on Abram and the other characters fall away. No. We will see Nahor and Haran and his descendants come into the picture again. These are important characters, and they are part of Abraham’s story too. This is a story of the sons of Terah and what happens to them. Now, clearly, it focuses upon Abraham in particular, but there is a lot more going on that involves these other characters.

As he leaves Ur of the Chaldees and as he leaves Haran, Abram takes with him his nephew, Lot. Lot is the son of Haran. What is going on there? God promises that as he leaves his country, his kindred, and his father’s house that he will be made a great nation. God will bless him. He will make his name great and bless those who bless him, curse those who curse him; in him, all the nations of the world will be blessed, all the families of the earth. First of all, we need to see this against the background of what happened at the events of Babel. At Babel, the nations were formed by a curse, by a judgment. And here, the nations are all going to be blessed through this one particular nation that is formed through divine call. This is the answer to Babel. There is a new humanity being formed, and this new humanity will bring with it a new creation. And it will restore all these damaged nations that have been judged as a result of the fall at Babel. It is a response to that crisis. God is going to form a new people, and he is going to train this people, form these people in order that they will be a light to all these other peoples. All the Gentiles will be blessed through this person and through his family.

As you read through the story, this is part of what you are learning—how this people of Abraham are formed to be a blessing to all the other nations. It is not just Abram; it is Abram and his family.

The other thing to notice is that, at the beginning of the story of Genesis 11, the people come to Shinar, this plain, and they settle there. They dwell there. That language is not that common in Scripture, but it is something that we find at the end of chapter 11 as well, where they come to Haran and they dwell there. It is ominous language. It is the sort of language that we find at the beginning of the Book of Ruth, where we have Elimelech and Naomi going to Moab and settling there—they dwell there. There is a sense of tarrying somewhere that maybe you should not be tarrying. You need to be moving on. But yet you are settling and dwelling in a place where you should not be. And you are engaging in something that is ultimately going to fail. And so, they dwell in Haran, just as they dwelt earlier in Babel.

What else is happening here? At Babel, you have a Hamite civilization led by Nimrod. And the sons of Shem are presumably working for this Hamite civilization. Later on we will see that again, within the story of Scripture, as Israel builds these great store cities and other things for the Egyptians, another Hamite civilization, Mizraim. That connection helps us to understand another theme that is starting to emerge throughout this text. We will see Egyptians coming into the story again very soon. Egyptians are a very important part of this story and we will see how they have a role to play within the life of Israel, of the family of Abram.

Why does he take Lot? Lot is the son of Haran, the dead brother. And if he has taken the daughter of Haran, and he also takes Lot, he seems to be taking, in some sense, responsibility for the name of the dead brother. This is a Levirate marriage-type situation—if he does take Sarai, if Sarai is indeed Iscah. If Sarah is Iscah, then there is a broader Levirate marriage-type situation—as we find, even in some societies to this day, but certainly within the ancient world—not just of the younger brother marrying the elder brother’s widow, but the younger brother or the other brothers taking responsibility for the dead brother’s whole family and taking responsibility for their name. That can involve, not just the widow, but also other situations. So, in the story of Judah and Tamar, we will see the father marrying or having relations with the daughter-in-law. Here we have relations between the brother of the dead brother and his niece. And so, these are relations that are significant ones.

Later on, we will see that Sarai is discussed as the daughter of his father, but not of his mother—his half-sister. But we also see that that language of sisterhood does not necessarily mean biological sister. Lot is also described as his ‘brother’ later on in the text, even though he is his nephew. And so, we see here, I think, quite possibly a Levirate-type situation, a broader situation where Abram has taken on responsibility for preserving the name of his dead brother. He has taken as his wife the daughter of the dead brother, and he has taken, as it were, as his adopted son and brother the son of the dead brother. Lot and Abram go together.

Now, what might Abram be thinking in taking Lot, and what might he be thinking in association with the promise that is made to him, the call that is given to him? Abram is surrounded with a great number of people. When we look through the story of Genesis, we will see that—for instance, in a few chapters’ time—Abram has three hundred and eighteen fighting men. Abram is not an individual guy going through the wilderness with a tent, and his wife, and hoping that they will have kids. No. Abram has a great sheikhdom around him, and he has vast flocks and herds. He is someone who has a great entourage around him. He is not just an individual person. He is surrounded by many others.

What might he be thinking at this point? He is trying to preserve the name of his dead brother, but Lot might be the one through whom his name is going to be made great. This is his adopted son, brother, and maybe it is Lot that will be the one through whom his name will be established. We do not have here a promise of children. What we have is a promise that his name will be great. And, in principle, Abram could be the father of the people, and Lot could be the one through whom that is achieved. Later on, we will see that this is not to be the case. But here we see events already in motion that will provide some of the crisis points later on, where routes that seemingly could have been taken start to turn out to be dead ends. Where is the promise going to be fulfilled now? Lot might be the one through whom the promise is to be fulfilled. Lot might be the descendant, as it were, of Abram in principle, the one who is going to inherit his name and his house, and establish his name more generally.

But yet, it is not to be. And so, they leave Ur of the Chaldees, and then they leave Haran. They have left, in a very important way, the legacy of the dead brother behind. And they are going to have his name made great by God himself.

Abram has shown a commitment to the name of his dead brother, to this person who is most vulnerable. There is no way Haran can act in defence of his own honour, in the defence of his own name, and in the defence of his own house. He has died. He has off the scene. But yet, he still has interests in the world. And his brothers act at that point. Just as Shem and Japheth acted to protect the honour of their father, so here we see Nahor and Abram acting to defend the name of their dead brother. They intervene, and then there is a blessing that comes from that.

This is the beginning of the story. This is how the ball starts rolling. We have something of the crisis already being introduced, something that has set the scene—the death of the older brother, and now the question of legacy. How is the legacy going to come? Sarai is barren. Is it going to be through Lot? Here we see the ball already rolling and the events of the curse of Babel—that Fall or flood-type event—being responded to by an act of blessing and call which will yield a great narrative and a great family that comes from this.

2 thoughts on “The Family of Abraham: Part 2—A Dead Brother and a Barren Wife

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